InterAct Blog

Lessons from COVID-19: three steps to building pandemic preparedness

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated significant difficulties in producing vital healthcare equipment, including ventilators. As the probability of another virus outbreak is expected to reach 27% in the next decade, it is crucial to develop manufacturing capabilities for initiating emergency production with greater speed, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness. In this article, Nikolai Kazantsev from the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) at the University of Cambridge suggests three steps to building pandemic preparedness. He draws on their recent study which offers insight into how UK manufacturers can navigate uncertain periods and contribute to critical public health initiatives.

  • During a pandemic, it is necessary to reconfigure supply chains for emergency production.
  • Preparedness can be facilitated through three key steps:
    • Identifying products and components necessary to fulfil human needs.
    • Mapping manufacturing capabilities across supply chains for a potential response.
    • Developing an AI model to triage production options when the pandemic starts.
  • Government investment in pandemic preparedness will prevent delays, improve quality, and reduce recovery costs.
Preparing for future pandemics

The UK’s National Risk Register (2023) has identified a future pandemic as one of the five most probable catastrophic risks. Future pandemics could have critical negative impacts on human health, particularly cardiac and digestive health, with the potential to disrupt water and food systems. With the World Health Organization continuing to discuss the potential of unknown diseases of high contamination and mortality that can trigger a pandemic worldwide (a so-called ‘Disease X’), novel efforts are needed to prepare the manufacturing sector for future emergency production. 

Up to now, most of the focus on pandemic preparedness has been on developing vaccine technology platforms for future virus strains and antibiotics for bacteria, especially considering the threat of antimicrobial resistance. However, what has been neglected is the local manufacturing capabilities to produce the quantity and variety of supplies required to deal with pandemic impacts. These capabilities should be able to meet potential production needs and guarantee that every patient in need of medical equipment can access it even during the peak of a crisis.

Emergency product designs must be safe to use and fit for purpose rather than complex and stylish. It is also essential to learn how to triage existing manufacturing capabilities at the outset of any pandemic outbreak, considering quality, lead times, and production scale-up costs. Moreover, emergency production planning should consider the risks of individual factory disruption and related component scarcity. The aim is to facilitate the development of supply chains capable of responding to the likely or quasi-certain emergence of demand and fluctuations therein for emergency products beyond those previously produced within supply chains.

Case study: Emergency consortia across supply chains

Ventilator production in the UK during COVID-19 has produced much knowledge of scaling up emergency equipment. In March 2020, the Cabinet Office identified the urgent need to manufacture healthcare ventilators to support critically ill patients’ breathing functions. Working in collaboration with clinicians and the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, they developed the specifications for the Rapidly Manufactured Ventilator System. Because no single company could handle the emergency production on its own, this could have been overcome only through consortium effort. Emergency consortia are networks ‘wider’ than existing supply chains, which aggregate various capabilities to respond to unmet demand during disruptions that have a broad resonance, such as pandemics. Consortia are built around the required product components (e.g. a bill of materials for ventilator production) and often include companies that are non-traditional to the medical industry, such as aerospace and automotive manufacturers, technology providers, manufacturers, and third-party logistics firms.

For example, ‘Ventilator Challenge UK’ (VC UK) consortium was an example of a massive achievement that produced in 12 weeks over half of all the ventilators made available to the NHS during the pandemic. Focused on a desire to save lives, VC UK led the way in digital innovation, leveraging technology such as a digital twin of the production process, simulation of production facilities, and the use of “augmented reality” glasses to train 3,500 assembly workers, all while adhering to strict social distancing measures. From VC UK’s success, one still has much to learn about how to plan emergency production faster, better, and cheaper in the eventuality of another pandemic. For example, as there was no approved emergency product design, the first 29 days of the project were spent on redesigning the similar product (anaesthesia machine) to meet the functionality and safety scale-up needs of the ventilator specification. Moreover, this redesign faced multiple bottlenecks at the component level that limited the pace of emergency production scale-up and required continuous constraint optimisation.

Building a process of future pandemic preparedness

Based on the case study, three steps for manufacturers have been suggested: (1) identifying products and components necessary to fulfil human needs; (2) mapping UK manufacturing capabilities across supply chains to deploy capacity for these products; (3) developing a tool to triage options when the pandemic starts.

  1. Production needs

According to the ‘Futures Wheel’ toolkit, recommended by the Government Office for Science, a pandemic is an example of an event that creates cascading causal effects. While a pandemic can take various forms, the population will need similar functions, such as preventing contamination (the direct consequences of that risk), supporting primary care (‘second order’) or sustaining critical human functions within intensive care (‘third order’ consequences). For example, first, second and third-order consequences of the pandemic risk bring the following production needs:

  1. Need to prevent contamination: PPE, water filters, sanitisers, and disinfectants.
  2. Need to support primary care: vaccines and antibiotic medicine. 
  3. Need to support intensive care: ventilators and other ICU equipment.

Design and production specialists/ physicians and hospital experts should confirm what equipment and designs will be needed in any epidemic affecting patients’ vital functions. However, it is not enough simply to identify emergency products. These products must be certified as fit-for-purpose during a future pandemic, ensuring safety and quality, and adaptability in the expectation of potential shortages. Paradoxically, the better 1st order emergency production (for preventing contamination), and 2nd order production (primary care), the less one would need (far more) complex 3rd order emergency production.

Moreover, building similar consequences after other risks from the National Risk Register and overlapping production needs can help prioritise production preparedness covering the greatest number of risks.

  • Manufacturing capabilities

A rapid roll-out of emergency products requires capabilities to deploy manufacturing capacity close to demand. Recent evidence from the US suggests that systematic investments in a combination of local inventories, manufacturing capacities, and capabilities produce the best response to the pandemic. Hence, the potential emergency products and their components should be mapped with the existing list of inventories, capacities, and manufacturing capabilities. That will facilitate simulations of demand for emergency equipment driven by potential pandemics and calculations of the number of emergency products manufactured to meet this (the lead time of ‘Ventilator Challenge UK’ production during COVID-19 was three months). For example, if there is a demand for 30,000 cardio stimulators – How quickly can this be satisfied locally, i.e., without reliance on imports? What would be the lead time/costs? The outcomes can be presented using technology such as the augmented reality platforms (industrial metaverse), to better interpret and explain these simulations.

To improve emergency production results, preparatory efforts must include identifying similar products and equipment, in addition to developing cross-disciplinary skills across large firms’ medical and engineering specialisms that may be reused for emergency production. Smaller firms must be supported in undergoing certification protocols to become regular suppliers to the NHS through their normal procurement framework.

  • Triage options

The future pandemic is expected to impact various parts of global supply chains, particularly in densely populated regions. Unfortunately, predicting which factories within supply chains will be disrupted and which components might become unavailable is impossible. However, under pandemic conditions, most companies, especially those in unaffected areas, are likely to be willing to help. As new manufacturing capabilities become available, efforts should focus on developing an adaptable AI model to align existing capabilities with risks and offer practical solutions to address supply chain bottlenecks for emergency production.

Such a model can base on the AI tools, which helps match production needs with manufacturing capabilities and can suggest new connections between components. By integrating manufacturing capabilities for emergency product, AI can help to infer real options across supply chains after the pandemic starts and arrange those considering costs, lead time, or carbon dioxide emission. For example, AI tool can suggest alternative inventories, factories, or even supply chains for the specified product design to deliver a scarce component, define the best response, and reduce the number of consortia working in parallel. For example, one can use stress testing, a method developed by David Simchi-Levi from the MIT Data Science Lab, to identify significant risks in a supply chain. This method helps find small but important component suppliers that may become bottlenecks in the supply chain when demand changes and it improves overall supply chain resilience.

Improving local manufacturing capabilities

While the COVID-19 experience suggests the rationale for running multiple teams in parallel to manage risks of non-delivery, an excessive number of teams working in parallel drains resources, overloads regulatory bodies, and increases recovery costs. As an alternative, the development of local manufacturing capabilities would make a significant difference in improving production resilience in the UK by enabling current supply chains to be reconfigured for human necessities. Moreover, with the advancement in AI, having an adaptable AI model capable of handling the triage at a state of readiness could be a powerful national asset.  It can demonstrate the production readiness for potential demand shocks, such as the future pandemic. Policymakers might test it using real industrial intervention, increasing confidence that the population will be safe.  

The UK Cabinet Office should consider updating resilience and innovation policies, considering the risks identified in the National Risk Register (2023), to formalise activating production consortia at the onset of the next pandemic and strengthen long-term supply chain resilience. These include: Responding to Emergencies, theNational Resilience Framework, the Resilience Capabilities Programme and the Supply Chain Resilience Framework.

What practical steps should manufacturers take to prepare?
  • Focus on ‘known unknowns’; identify where you fit in to support emergency production.
  • Register participation in the local resilience forums (LRFs) and consider extending business strategy with risk and resilience.
  • Enable regular stress testing of the supply chain, considering potential bottlenecks to production growth.

The IfM is currently working on developing elastic manufacturing systems for highly regulated sectors such as aerospace, automotive, and food. These industries have very strict regulations, which limit production agility. The goal is to support the operation of UK manufacturers under continual demand fluctuations.

If you would like to collaborate with the team regarding pandemic preparedness, please contact Dr. Nikolai Kazantsev — or IfM Engage (

Acknowledgement: The article is devoted to the 4th anniversary of ‘Ventilator Challenge UK’ consortium. The author acknowledges Dick Elsy, CBE, the former Chief Executive Officer of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult (HVM Catapult), for feedback on the paper development, and the kind help and inspiration of Elizabeth Garnsey, Professor Emerita, IfM, University of Cambridge and the community of Clare Hall College. This work was supported by the UKRI Made Smarter Innovation Challenge and the Economic and Social Research Council via InterAct [Grant Reference ES/W007231/1]. Further, the first author acknowledges EPSRC funding, grant reference EP/T024429/1 via ‘Elastic Manufacturing systems – a platform for dynamic, resilient and cost-effective manufacturing services’.

Productivity Resources

Process Oriented Holonic (PrOH) Modelling Methodology

A short video explaining the benefits of, and reasoning behind, the development of the PrOH Modelling methodology

PrOH Modelling is a type of soft systems methodology that is used to enquire into and improve complex systemic organizational process problems. As a soft systems methodology PrOH Modelling emphasizes understanding, definition, consensus building and action taking to solve problems. It is particularly useful in processes that are dependent on lots of human activity and decision making, have a high degree of subjectivity and have numerous different stakeholders with diverse backgrounds and opinions. PrOH Modelling is best used in an action research or intervention based context where a researcher is an active participant in organizational strategy and operations and is able to maintain an independent and objective perspective.

The PrOH Modelling approach has been successfully applied in numerous manufacturing contexts including:

  • Improving leanness and productivity in automotive manufacturing
  • The challenges of digitalizing an aerospace supply chain
  • Upscaling supply chains for the manufacture of electric vehicles

The website exists for the community of PrOH Modellers. This includes those who wish to use it for academic research projects such as masters dissertation or doctoral theses, those who wish to use it for change projects in their own organizations, or in a consulting capacity in other organizations. We also welcome users to develop the method and share new case study examples with the community.

This research was conducted by Professor Ben Clegg and Dr. Krishna Balthu (Aston University). This work was supported by the UKRI Made Smarter Innovation Challenge and the Economic and Social Research Council via InterAct [Grant Reference ES/W007231/1].

For further discussions or to propose potential applications/collaborations, please contact Ben Clegg.


InterAct joins Innovate UK’s Made Smarter Innovation Showcase

On the 5th June, Innovate UK’s Made Smarter Innovation Showcase took place at Smart Factory Expo.

For the past four years, Made Smarter Innovation Alley at Smart Factory Expo has been a key platform for connecting technology companies with manufacturers, however this year it had a strong focus on celebrating the incredible achievement of organisations the industrial challenge (ISCF) has supported.

The event was an opportunity for the dynamic display of cutting-edge companies and academic organisations. The showcase highlighted success stories where organisations have leveraged the Challenge’s support to become leaders in areas like carbon abatement, resilience, and productivity and people running through the heart of the Showcase.

Smart Factory Expo saw over 13,000 attendees across the 2 days who explored over 200 exhibitions. Made Smarter Innovation hosted over 30 organisations, including InterAct, on their stand.

Made Smarter Innovation supported a number of engaging talks across the Smart Factory Expo theatres:

InterAct also had the chance to showcase the latest animated videos from the ‘Insights from History’ project, highlighting the important lessons for innovators that can be drawn from past industrial revolutions. You can watch the full series on our YouTube channel.

Productivity Resilience Resources

Industrial digital technologies for UK SME exporting manufacturers


This research project examines the drivers, barriers, and performance outcomes of adopting industrial digital technologies (IDTs) in UK manufacturing firms. The findings outlined in the report and toolkit provide insights on the interventions that facilitate IDT adoption to enhance the performance of SME manufacturers exporting to international markets.

The project collected primary data from focus groups, interviews and a survey of 303 UK manufacturing SMEs currently exporting products. The outcomes from this primary research were used to develop an IDT adoption toolkit and decision-making model. This toolkit allows UK SME manufacturers to benchmark their level of IDT adoption against the industry standard, to identify which specific IDTs will have the greatest impact on improving their business performance across many indicators, and additionally can direct users to the digital solutions most relevant to their needs, thereby simplifying the process of IDT adoption.

Dr Hanh Pham, Dr Richard Hodgett and Prof Chee Yew Wong (University of Leeds). This work was supported by the UKRI Made Smarter Innovation Challenge and the Economic and Social Research Council via InterAct [Grant Reference ES/W007231/1].

For further discussions or to propose potential applications/collaborations, please contact Hanh Pham.

People Resources

Digital Change Toolkit


The Digital Change Toolkit is a freely available online resource which can help organisations to prepare, design, and evaluate the people and organisational aspects of digital change. It consists of three core components:

  • A six-stage change process with comprehensive guidelines for each stage
  • The CResDA Tool (a questionnaire for assessing and evaluating employee attitudes)
  • The Socio-Technical Scenarios Tool (a workshop based tool for assessing the current situation, designing future visions and developing action plans).

The Digital Change Toolkit offers:

  • Reliability: The Toolkit is grounded in research and established best practice guidelines, to provide credibility and effectiveness in supporting digital change.
  • Integration Flexibility: The Toolkit can be used on its own or in conjunction with other tools that focus on the design and implementation of new technologies or business models as part of digital change.
  • Versatile Application: The Toolkit is suitable for different change projects (both large and small) that involve technology or digital tools.
  • Scalability: The Toolkit can be used within a single organisation, across organisations, or across supply chains and is flexible and adaptable to suit the needs of the organisational context in which it is used.

The Digital Change Toolkit provides comprehensive guidelines to follow at all six-stages of a digital change process.

This research was conducted by Professor Carolyn Axtell, Dr. Vladislav Grozev, and Dr. Hui Zhang (University of Sheffield). This work was supported by the UKRI Made Smarter Innovation Challenge and the Economic and Social Research Council via InterAct [Grant Reference ES/W007231/1].

For further discussions or to propose potential applications/collaborations, please contact Vladislav Grozev.

InterAct Blog

Improving supply chain ethics with the industrial metaverse

In today’s globalised business world, there is a growing need for ethical supply chain practices. Manufacturing companies are facing complex challenges in modern production, and the importance of transparency and accountability has never been greater.

In this article, leading InterAct funded researchers from the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) at the University of Cambridge explore the potential of the industrial metaverse to help elevate ethical standards across supply chains. Examining the intersection of technology and ethics, the IfM team offers valuable insights into how manufacturers can navigate regulatory environments, build consumer trust, and promote positive social change.

In a world of globalised supply chains, manufacturing firms often lack awareness and control of their external operations, which can result in unintentional non-compliance with regulations. While forced labour generates $236 billion in illegal profits annually (International Labour Organization), European companies will soon have to show compliance with environmental and human rights standards within their supply chains.

In response to mounting concerns, Europe is poised to implement stringent measures to hold corporations accountable for their supply chain practices. The forthcoming ‘Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive’ heralds a new era of corporate responsibility. Large companies must conduct comprehensive audits of their supply chains, identifying and rectifying instances of forced labour and environmental degradation. Compliance will hinge on demonstrating adherence of the supply chain ecosystem to human rights and environmental standards.

The regulatory landscape is not confined to Europe alone. The UK, through initiatives like the Modern Slavery Act of 2005, has committed to fostering transparency within supply chains to eradicate all forms of worker exploitation. Moreover, further legislative reforms are on the horizon, promising a paradigm shift in corporate accountability.

How high is the risk of being penalised for suppliers’ actions?

Currently, the lack of production transparency allows non-ethical manufacturers to cut corners, giving them a competitive cost advantage that appeals to consumers. Unfortunately, many of these consumers are unaware of the wider context and end up supporting production that causes serious harm to societies and the planet.

Manufacturers can’t wait for new regulations about environmental and human rights standards in the UK. They must lead the development of digital tools for their production environments that delve into the existing supply chain data. This will demonstrate that their products are made with minimal adverse impact.

To enable this, it is crucial to make the production processes more transparent. One possible way to achieve this transparency is by leveraging augmented reality technologies, which can interpret and explain the existing complex data along supply chain echelons and incentivise the creation of new data sources.

So, in light of these developments, how can manufacturers ensure compliance with the new regulations and help uphold human rights and environmental protection?

The industrial metaverse: the foundation for a more transparent supply chain?

Recent research conducted by IfM (supported by the UKRI Made Smarter Innovation Challenge and funded via the Economic and Social Science Research Council (ESRC)-led InterAct Network) offers an extensive overview of 1,680 international studies which reveal how extended reality technologies can support UK manufacturing by demonstrating production provenance in the Industrial Metaverse.

The Metaverse is a term used to describe the merging of the physical and digital worlds. It was first introduced by Neal Stephenson in his novel Snow Crash and later popularised by Mark Zuckerberg with Meta, a social network in extended reality.

The Industrial Metaverse comprises a series of ‘snapshots of realities’ around the data on sourcing, production, and delivery of components of a manufactured product, which can be explored in augmented reality. By exploring the upstream supply chain of components leading to the product, manufacturers can identify risks and take corrective action to comply with upcoming regulations.

Deploying industrial metaverse technology in practice requires:

  • access to data sources;
  • software (e.g. Unity Engine);
  • augmented reality headsets (e.g. Microsoft Hololens, Meta).

Although 3D virtual productions might look complex and expensive, new AI techniques such as Gaussian splatting can significantly reduce the cost of reality reproduction: a ‘reality snapshot’ can now be created by anyone using a smartphone. This means, UK manufacturers can demand the video screening of the production environment from potential suppliers at the procurement stage. This is where lower-tier suppliers are incentivised to agree to increase transparency in exchange for eligibility to sell products and services.  Decentralised databases can be used to store this information at the supply chain level. It is important to note that creating fake snapshots could lead to legal repercussions and regulatory requirements.

Case study: contrasting opaque and transparent chocolate supply chains

Agriculture is almost uniquely resistant to technological change because of the remoteness/lack of oversight/scale of sites, and it is an area desperately in need of innovation. Leading chocolate brands have long been criticised for neglecting ethical standards in cocoa procurement, and many of the brands can’t effectively enact change since the market behind wholesalers is not transparent. This situation creates a high risk potential for social injustice and modern slavery, i.e. when the wholesaler purchasing prices make cocoa sales below the point of profitability, and farmers are forced to take children out of school to work on the farm.

Industrial metaverse, established along such supply chains, can spur transparency and influence to change the status quo. As European consumers are the primary market for cocoa harvesting, they have the market power to improve conditions for farmers in West Africa. To end forced labour and enable children to access education, requires new tools that support the transparency of cocoa supply chains for consumers.

While labour and environmental abuses exist in many supply chains, shocking 60% of cocoa-growing households in Ghana’s upstream cocoa supply chain are estimated to use child labour. Ensuring manfuacturers and consumers have access to accurate information about these unethical practices is therefore an urgent issue. A famous example of good practice is the ‘Bean to bar’ Tracker, along with QR codes,  barcodes,  biological markers of specific farms and fermentation processing locations, all of which can link chocolate bars to their potential origin. By comparing the known land size of a farm and the claimed cocoa harvest from that land, we can identify if cocoa of unknown origin is blended into the batch. While such tools are currently being used internally for supply chain traceability, adding an Industrial Metaverse component can open up and showcase the evidence to consumers. Consumers will be able to witness vivid experiences demonstrating the potential impact of supporting the chosen brand. This can showcase the positive changes to society (e.g. freeing children labouring to get an education) or highlight negative practices (e.g. the realities of environmental damage or modern slavery). Such evidence can build a strong identification that by purchasing ethical brands, consumers will be supporting the continuity of ethical production practices and local communities’ upstream supply chains.

Transforming production practices in the industrial metaverse

The Industrial Metaverse will increasingly move from merely representing reality, to shaping it. By shifting demand to ethical products, manufacturers will be able to increase their production scale, reducing the cost per unit and creating a greater impetus towards sustainability.

Instead of waiting for new regulations about environmental and human rights standards to be implemented in the UK, manufacturers must lead the development of similar immersive experience prototypes to confirm the ethics of their production environments. Going beyond the food production case, electronics and automotive manufacturers can validate their production processes by establishing an industrial metaverse around their products and demanding ‘reality snapshot’ data from their supply chains. It will propagate the impact across supply chains towards reaching multiple firms worldwide and make production more transparent for consumers. Not only will that reduce risks of non-compliance with upcoming regulations, but it will also anchor consumer demand with positive societal changes along supply chains.  By doing so, manufacturers can champion Sustainable Development Goal 12: “Responsible Consumption and Production”.

What practical steps should manufacturers take from this?
  1. Audit internal cost structures and visibility of operations along supply chains. Instead of aggregating costs at the wholesale level, manufacturers must enquire about the work conditions, energy sources, and potential carbon dioxide emissions through supply chain tiers.
  2. Collaborate with extended reality solution providers to prototype Industrial Metaverse around their products and reveal production ethics along supply chains.
  3. Analyse the integrated data and leverage alternative ways to reduce ethical risks. Communication throughout the industrial sector will help address industrial concerns about data privacy and confidentiality, leading to the industrial standard.

The IfM is currently working on developing a metaverse pilot for highly regulated sectors like aerospace, automotive, and food. These industries have very strict regulations that limit transparency. The goal is to enable a more transparent supply chain, which would contribute to the adherence of human rights and environmental protection. If you would like to collaborate with the team, contact Dr. Nikolai Kazantsev – or IfM Engage.

Acknowledgement: This work was supported by the UKRI Made Smarter Innovation Challenge and the Economic and Social Research Council via InterAct [Grant Reference ES/W007231/1]. We thank Prof Letizia Mortara, Dr Michael Rogerson and Alice Mumford for their feedback on this article.

This article draws from the InterAct report ‘Manufacturing in the Metaverse’

This article was originally published on The Manufacturer


InterAct delivers message of human insight driven digitalisation at MACH24 and Future of UK Manufacturing Conference

On 16th April, InterAct Co-directors Professor Janet Godsell and Professor Jillian MacBryde joined audiences from across the manufacturing, digital technology, policy and academic communities at MACH24 and the ‘Future of UK Manufacturing’ Conference to discuss the strides InterAct is making to deliver new human insights into the digitalisation of manufacturing.

MACH24 is one of the UK’s largest manufacturing focused trade shows, bringing together over 500 exhibitors – all eager to showcase their latest cutting edge, innovative products and services across many sectors. InterAct was present for three days this year, with a stand in the Engineering Supply Chain Show where researchers and InterAct staff had the chance to engage with dozens of businesses.

The ‘Future of UK Manufacturing’ conference is an event organised by High Value Manufacturing Catapult, EPSRC and the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM), University of Cambridge, which brings together leaders from academia, government and industry. This year’s line up of speakers included: Sarah Sharples, Chief Scientific Advisor for the Department for Transport, Katherine Bennett CBE from the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, Benjamin Nicol from the Advanced Manufacturing team at the Department for Business and Trade, and Professor Jillian MacBryde, InterAct Co-director and Vice-Dean of Strathclyde Business School.

Visiting the events at the NEC, Birmingham and Cutlers’ Hall, Sheffield respectively, Professors Godsell and MacBryde delivered talks focusing on the scope of the InterAct Network’s projects, our growth over the past two years and the exciting forthcoming research outputs.

Discussing her session at the ‘Future of UK Manufacturing’ conference, Professor MacBryde said: “It’s fantastic to have the opportunity to be here with so many voices from across the industry, policy, and academic divide, all discussing how we can drive forward a bold vision for the future of manufacturing in the UK.

We are conducting a lot of really valuable work concerning the integral role of people and human insights in the digitalisation process, and it’s been great to have the opportunity to deliver a overview of what we’re doing to such a receptive audience. The discussions we’ve engaged in here today will definitely help to inform our research going forward.”


Made Smarter Centre for People-Led Digitalisation launches call for papers

To improve productivity and efficiency the manufacturing sector has regularly looked to evolve its systems and embrace new technologies. More recently the pace of change has intensified as we see the emergence of digital technologies such as artificial intelligence, digital twins, advanced analytics, cobotics, and smart manufacturing. Learning from past challenges, particularly in the 1980s when the adoption of robotics faced obstacles due to insufficient consideration of human factors, centres like the Made Smarter Innovation: Centre for People-Led Digitalisation have recognised the important role that people play in the adoption and acceptance of new technologies.

Although digital technologies have the promise of creating significant economic, environmental and societal benefits, they also have the potential to substantially alter the future of work – the jobs people do and how people work. The world is currently at a crucial decision point – what do we want the future of work to look like?

Taking a people-led approach to digitalisation aims at improving the outcome of the adoption of digital technologies. This is achieved through prior explicit consideration and planned appropriate action that prioritises human needs and working patterns in the design and implementation of digitalised work systems.

The team at People-Led Digitalisation are seeking to publish innovative research which explores the human element of digitalisation, be that in the design of digital technologies or the implementation of digital technologies within a manufacturing environment.

They are welcoming original research, reviews, impact and industrial case studies, from the perspective of improving manufacturing performance such as (but not limited to); increased productivity, reduction in environmental impacts, re-imagining manufacturing jobs, people-led digital change. The following top-level themes should be used as a basis:

• The future of work in manufacturing to 2030 and beyond,
• Stakeholder engagement in digital change,
• Digital skills,
• Industrial Digital Tools for good work,
• Metrics of success in digitalisation projects,
• Enablers and barriers to the adoption of digital technologies,
• Readiness for digital change,
• People-led approach to design of digital technologies.

InterAct Blog

More than just a desk: Can co-working spaces make labour markets more inclusive?

This article was originally published on the OECD COGITO blog

Since the pandemic, co-working spaces have exploded in popularity. The number of people working in these spaces worldwide is predicted to double in 2024, relative to 2021, reaching 5 million users. They offer an accessible, flexible mode of working that appeals to professionals, leading policy makers to look for ways to harness their potential to drive growth. But can they also have a role in making growth more inclusive? 

More than just a desk

Co-working spaces (CWs) come in various forms. The physical spaces range from adaptable layouts in industrial settings, including converted warehouses and historic buildings, to specialised studios tailored for comfort. They can be for-profit companies and non-profits, and many are supported by local governments or regional development agencies.  

Public support can be directed to the owners of a co-working space. For instance, local governments have provided financial support to run a co-working space or incentives for the creation of co-working spaces in unused public buildings. In other cases, the use of co-working spaces can be encouraged, for instance through the provision of vouchers to freelancers, self-employed workers and businesses.  

Co-working spaces offer cost-effective solutions for individual users through shared infrastructure. Moreover, they foster a diverse in-house community for start-ups, entrepreneurs, freelancers and companies. Firms of all sizes increasingly use co-working spaces to allow their employees to work away from headquarters, resulting in a trend where office workers now live further from their jobs than they did before the pandemic. 

As a hotbed of new activities, from fostering entrepreneurship to networking among workers from different companies, co-working spaces may provide a boost to local economies. For instance, the Ludgate Hub in County Cork, Ireland, can point having created over 300 new jobs in the region. However, there are more ways in which co-working spaces can benefit their communities. 

How co-working spaces can make local labour markets a little more inclusive

Many co-working spacess have become vibrant community hubs, closely integrated with their local environments. A 2019 study on co-working spaces in Italy reported that three-quarters of the surveyed coworkers noted a beneficial impact on the urban and local context. Due to their connections with local communities, evidence is also mounting that co-working spaces can support those facing challenges in the labour market in at least three ways. 

First, by providing a convenient solution for workers with family or caring responsibilities. A national panel survey of 2 500 working parents conducted by Harvard Business Review revealed that “nearly 20% of working parents had to leave work or reduce their work hours solely due to a lack of childcare. Only 30% of all working parents had any form of back-up childcare, and there were significant disparities between low and high-income households”. Some co-working spaces, like The Tribe in Devon, UK, tailor their support and community building to focus on the needs of women – especially working mothers and carers. Others, like Coworking Toddler in Hannover and Berlin, Germany, take a step further by providing workplaces that integrate professional settings with childcare, enabling parents to concentrate on their work while their children are cared for in an adjacent daycare facility. 

Second, by providing a space for more experienced workers to share their knowledge with individuals Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEETs) and other vulnerable groups. Co-working spaces have been actively creating opportunities for young artisans to work alongside experienced professionals, some retired, who are eager to pass on their manufacturing expertise. For instance, Fablab in Verona, Italy, and Center-Rog in Ljubljana, Slovenia, provide an entry point for people of all age groups to learn new skills, with trainings offered ranging from 3D-printing to food preparation.  

Third, by supporting the attraction and retention of high-skilled workers. Co-working spaces can contribute to the retention of local workers by providing them an option to combine remote work with occasional office attendance. This is particularly critical in rural areas, as it allows such places to retain and attract high-skilled workers, for instance, in the Ems-Achse, a group of mostly rural districts in north-west Germany. However, co-working spaces also provide these high-skilled remote workers with a vital connection to the local community, through which they can share knowledge and inspire others.  

Supporting innovative initiatives

In short, co-working spaces can provide communities with valuable new hubs that can connect workers, helping share knowledge, skills, and opportunities. This can help regions address pressing labour shortages and skills gaps while supporting vulnerable workers into new opportunities. Many local governments and employment agencies are therefore finding creative ways to support co-working spaces as part of a broader strategy to build thriving communities.  

“In my experience, my coworking community helps more with mental health balance for my coworkers – as most come to my space for the social links that are created here. The networking aspect which stems from this means that most of my coworkers have used services offered by other coworkers (coaching, communications services, building renovation …) or collaborated with other coworkers on projects (an architect with an interior designer, two coaches on a new service offering…).” 

Antonia Mahon, Founder of The Hub in Sèvres, France 
Productivity Resilience Resources

Verification, validation and testing (VVT) for new products and technology

The development of new digital technology needs extensive verification, validation and testing (VVT). Implementing an effective way of analysing the requirements of different stakeholders, i.e., the customer’s voice, regulations and business’s voice and how these requirements must be considered often poses a significant challenge.

This project has developed a systematic method of analysing critical requirements and influences on VVT activity for new technology development and manufacturing. This offers support for the adoption of digital technologies and facilitates collaboration between SMEs and larger companies. The free to use online tool gives you the ability to visually analyse the transition of requirements from risk analysis to prioritisation and the impact of these choices.

This research was conducted by Dr. Khadija Tahera (The Open University). This work was supported by the UKRI Made Smarter Innovation Challenge and the Economic and Social Research Council via InterAct [Grant Reference ES/W007231/1].

For further discussions or potential applications/collaborations, please contact Khadija Tahera.